"Rip, Ashisogi Jizō."

As he watched the Soul Slayer change into a horrific, unnaturally-proportioned but still very recognisable shape, Kyōraku suddenly realised just why Kurotsuchi always carried it swung between his legs in that fashion. He struggled against the chains at his wrists and ankles but, skilfully made, they wouldn't give an inch. As the world before his eyes grew faint again, the Eighth Squad Captain started to feel that his amorous adventures had finally gone a step too far.

Let us backtrack a little. It was early spring in Soul Society, and the cherry trees were in full bloom. The Kuchiki girl was due to be sent out into Karakura Town in a matter of days. Reports from the living world and Hueco Mundo confirmed that everything was proceeding exactly according to plan, so exactly, in fact, that it was close to suspicious. Sitting at the window of his Fifth Squad office sipping green tea, Aizen idly ran through another half a dozen contingencies - from the possible, such as an Urahara-loyal faction being concealed within the Warlock Combine, to the less likely, such as Karakura Town being defended by an elite squad of stuffed toys. In short, Aizen Sōsuke was very bored.

His lieutenants might not have had access to the full inner workings of his heart, but long experience had taught them one important thing: when Lord Aizen is bored, you want to be very far away, ideally in another dimension. Genius, boredom, and apparently unlimited power are a truly frightening combination. As such, Gin and Tōsen were sensibly lying low, busying themselves with paperwork in one case and ever more relentless squad drills in the other (come to think of it, Aizen had yet to learn how Tōsen did his paperwork). Aizen was just pondering what other toys he might turn to when a very pink cherry blossom, wafted by the wind, settled gently in his teacup. As he observed it, a plan was born. A plan so twisted, fiendish and horrific that even Urahara Kisuke, the one man he had ever considered an equal, would not have come up with it in a thousand years. Aizen allowed himself a shadow of a smile.

-o-

Later that evening, at a certain bar in the Court of Pure Souls...

"And then... and then she slapped me, and said I had the manners of an earthworm! And... and you know what's worse?"

Aizen quietly thanked himself for the centuries of planning that had built him his iron-clad patience. "What could possibly be worse than that, Captain Kyōraku?"

"She told me I wasn't a real man because I wore pink! How ridiculous is that?"

Aizen nodded sagely. "Whereas you and I know that it is exactly the other way round."

"That's right! You get it, Sōsuke! Only real men have the guts to pursue their... their... their aesthetic sense that far!" Kyōraku waved a glass of saké in the air for emphasis. Aizen subtly shifted to make sure none spilled on his robes.

"But then..." Aizen observed in a honeyed voice, "I have often wondered how many true men there are in the Court of Pure Souls. Present company excepted, Captain Kyōraku, it seems that not a single one of the captains either has or seeks a lover at all. Do you not find this peculiar?"

"That's true." Kyōraku nodded moodily. "They look down on me for chasing my passions, but you know what? I bet they're just repressed!" He took another drink. "Only a real man - or maybe a real woman - is ready to put their heart on the line every day in the name of love, that's what I think!"

"Yes, of course. If only there were some way of exposing those hidden passions, Captain Kyōraku. Wouldn't it be marvellous if we could prove, once and for all, that your way of living was the honest one, and theirs the lie?"

Even in the depths of inebriation, Kyōraku's eyes shone with a bright light. "That would be fantastic! I would love to see that. But I don't think it'll ever happen." He looked down as the brief flash of excitement began to wane again.

"As it happens, I think it might just be feasible." Aizen felt a little disappointed inside at how easy the process had been, but reassured himself by recalling that the interesting parts were yet to come. "Why not come down to my office tomorrow morning, Captain Kyōraku, once the hangover has worn off, of course, and we can talk about this further."

The wheels of fate had been set in motion. Now there was just a little groundwork left to do.

Outside the Thirteenth Squad Barracks, late evening...

Aizen made sure his disguise was perfect, then leaned back against a carefully-chosen wall and loudly said to himself "man, I'm gonna be in trouble if anyone finds out!"

Within seconds, Sentarō and Kiyone, Thirteenth Squad's tireless lieutenants, were standing either side of him.

"What's up?"

"What's going on?"

"Oh, oops. Guess you overheard me." Aizen, persona firmly in place, rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment. "But you mustn't tell anyone, OK? Not a soul."

"Tell them what?"

"We wouldn't tell anyone anything!"

Aizen leaned over conspiratorially. "No-one must find out that a journalist is coming tomorrow to interview the captains for an article on the best-run squad in Soul Society. It's top secret, so you mustn't tell a soul. Got it?"

The pair nodded, their faces glowing with trustworthiness.

"You can count on us. Sentarō might be a blabbermouth, but not a word will pass my lips."

"What's that, Kiyone? You're the one who pours out her soul after one drop of drink! I'm actually Captain Ukitake's confidant!"

"You what? You lying sack of..."

Taking advantage of the increasingly heated exchange, Aizen slipped away.

-o-

Fifth Squad Captain's Office, 1 pm...

"You can't be serious, Sōsuke!"

"Oh, but I am, Captain Kyōraku. You're the only man in Soul Society with the seduction skills to pull this off. With this secret disguise demon art, and your unique skills, how could anyone resist?"

Kyōraku looked unconvinced. Aizen smiled to himself, and moved on to the next phase.

"No, perhaps you are right. Perhaps this is too severe a challenge, even to your inestimable abilities. Such a pity... were you to successfully seduce even a single captain by the end of the day, I would feel fully justified in passing on this key to the Kuchiki Clan wine cellar. Did you know that after generations of noblemen spent a fortune accumulating a vast collection of the most exquisite alcohol, Captain Kuchiki is now letting it all go to waste? Why, I'm sure he hasn't even conducted a proper inventory, and has no idea how many bottles are there."

Kyōraku's left eyebrow twitched. He could tell when he was being manipulated, and privately congratulated young Sōsuke for having such an ace up his sleeve, but on the other hand... he had to admit the whole thing sounded like fun. And the idea of showing his often stuck-up colleagues a little of their true, carnal selves had an appeal all of its own. Not that he swung that way, of course, but as far as Kyōraku was concerned, seduction was successful the moment a target said "yes" and meant it - the rest, really, were details, like a post-victory celebration. They could be skipped without invalidating the victory itself.

"All right, Sōsuke, I accept your bet! Give me that scroll of disguise."

As Kyōraku retreated to a separate room to chant a long string of gibberish, Aizen, a little amused at himself, carefully sculpted the most seductive female body he could think of in his mind's eye. Kyōka Suigetsu knew that these few months would hold many challenges, but Aizen was fairly sure she had not anticipated this one.

At length, after the shouts of "moon prism power!" and "charm up, Mai Dream!" had died down, Kyōraku returned, robed in the finest ladies' kimono Aizen had been able to procure in the little time available. He could have had Kyōka Suigetsu manifest one, of course, but a real garment would be just that little bit more reliable when it came to interactions such as disrobing. And besides, if the clothes Kyōraku wore were all real... Aizen filed a certain cruel thought away for later enjoyment.

Meanwhile, he eyed his handiwork with a sort of detached approval. Vibrant black hair carefully bound in the traditional style. An hourglass figure with long slim legs, generously endowed. Aizen wasn't sure whether such physically perfect women actually existed in real life, but decided that any heterosexual man (and, indeed, more than a few women) would be too enraptured for critical analysis. He had already consulted Gin for reference on more materially-minded men's desires. Now he thought of it, wasn't there something of Matsumoto in the woman he had designed as a result?

Regardless, he reassured Kyōraku about his new feminine charms, gave him a few last-minute tips on approaching the various captains, and finished the visual effect off with a small ruby hairpin that accented the red of the kimono. His work was complete. Now to sit back and enjoy.

As for Kyōraku himself, he was impressed at the completeness of the disguise. While he still felt mostly the same, his reflection in the mirror had been quite striking, and he rather wished the lady in question had not been a complete fabrication. But on to more interesting matters... where to begin? After a little thought, Kyōraku decided to start off with a light warm-up. There was a young man out there whose teenage hormones were sure to be overflowing, ready to go off with suitable... provocation.

-o-

Tenth Squad Captain's Office, a little while later...

"Good afternoon. My name is Rakuen. Rakuen Shunga. I'm here to conduct interviews with the captains of the Thirteen Protection Squads for an article I'm working on." Kyōraku bowed low.

Hitsugaya, wishing he was not having quite such a clear view of the journalist's cleavage (and a little shocked that a woman who was not Matsumoto would wear a kimono so loosely), went slightly red. " Hitsugaya Tōshirō, Captain of Tenth Squad. Yes, I've heard all about you." He sat down at his desk, and motioned his visitor to the seat on the other side.

"Err... you have?"

"Oh, yes. Everyone in the Court has heard about your impending visit. So, how can I help you?"

"Well," Kyōraku recovered quickly, "I've heard that you are the child prodigy of the Thirteen Squads. But even for a genius, isn't it hard to maintain such a cool and collected style of leadership when you are, after all, less than a century old if the rumours are true?"

"Um." Hitsugaya seemed to have been expecting a less personal question to open with. "It's true that a captain's job involves meeting very high expectations, but I'm confident that with dedication and discipline, it is possible to compensate for lack of experience until it is no longer an issue."

"I see, I see. Such a mature answer." Kyōraku leaned forward with an expression of utmost interest. "But wouldn't it be better to gain more experience, in every way possible, when opportunities arise?"

"I'm... err... not entirely sure what you mean. I have a rigorous training regimen, and spend time in the library whenever I have a few hours to spare."

"Oh, but there are so many kinds of experience, aren't there, Captain Hitsugaya? For example, surely the business of your job doesn't leave much time to learn the ways of men and women?"

Hitsugaya shifted uneasily in his chair. "I don't think that's an appropriate subject for an interview. In any case, I think a captain's focus should be, above all, on his duty to his subordinates and to Soul Society. Personal concerns come after that."

Kyōraku leaned even further forward, getting uncomfortably close. "But just think... all of that talent you possess, and all the energy of youth... don't you think it is being wasted like this? Wouldn't it be better if you had a way of filling in the gaps in your experience, perhaps with the aid of an older woman who could teach you everything you need to know?"

Hitsugaya pulled back sharply, nearly causing his chair to fall backwards. "I'm not at all sure what you're suggesting. I thought this was an interview about a captain's work, not... not... um, our personal lives. Now, if you would be so kind..."

"Oh, but we've only just started. I've always been fascinated with snow and ice, Captain Hitsugaya. Why don't we go somewhere more private, and you can show me the detailed workings of your Soul Slayer?"

Hitsugaya abruptly stood up. "It's not that I don't appreciate your offer, but Matsumoto!" he said the name very loudly, "my lieutenant, is sleeping off a hangov- I mean, a long night of work in the next room, and I couldn't leave her here on her own."

"Oh, that's so noble." Kyōraku purred. "There's nothing like a chivalrous man in this day and age. But I'm sure it'll be OK if we're only away for a little while. After all, what harm could possibly come to a woman in the Tenth Squad Captain's Office?" He reached out to grab Hitsugaya's sleeve.

"No, no." Hitsugaya pulled his arm back with lightning reflexes born of desperation. "I really would feel guilty - after all, MATSUMOTO is one of my valued subordinates and I am responsible for her when she is incapacitated. Now, if you'll excuse me..."

"Well, then, if she is so very deeply asleep, perhaps it wouldn't matter if we continued matters right here. I'm sure there's so much we can teach each other, ingenious Captain Hitsugaya..." Kyōraku's hands went to the shoulders of his kimono.

In a flash, Hitsugaya was next to him, holding both hands up to prevent Kyōraku slipping the kimono down. "I'm sorry, but I don't think it would be fair to risk waking... MATSUMOTOOO!" he shouted at the top of his voice, "up during her well-earned rest!"

At this, one of the side doors opened, and the woman of the hour stumbled in, her hair and clothing in considerable disarray, and the stench of saké still flowing quite heavily from her.

"Wh-what's this? Get your hands off Captain Hitsugaya, you hussy!" Matsumoto staggered over to stand right behind him. "He's my Captain! Mine! You can't have him!"

Kyōraku was rather stunned at this turn of events. And he had been getting so close! "I... I don't think..."

Matsumoto would have none of it. "Nuh-uh. Only I get to flirt with the Captain. And maybe Hinamori." Hitsugaya visibly flinched. "Theirs is a pure love and I'm going to defend it to the death! Growl, Haineko!"

Kyōraku stepped back, and raised his hands to defend himself. This was going to be very painful.

"Um... Matsumoto... you do realise you're not wearing your sword?" Hitsugaya's eyes went to the heavens in an all-but-reflexive expression of exasperation.

"Then... then... Way of Destruction Number Thirty, Red Fla- or do I mean Twenty-Seven?" Matsumoto hesitated. "No, hang on, I think it's Thirty-Three! Or was it..."

Kyōraku took the opportunity to make his escape. Now he appreciated the wisdom of the rules which forbade ordinary carrying of Soul Slayers by lieutenant-classes and higher. But his first attempt had not gone well.

-o-

Later that day, at the Kuchiki Clan compound...

Kyōraku had not considered the issue of interruption before. That would make life more difficult. On the other hand, he could think of at least one captain currently without a lieutenant - and young Byakuya was practically the poster child for repression. Having watched him grow up, and knowing exactly which buttons to press, would make this a piece of cake.

"Please, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Rakuen Shunga, and I would like to humbly request the honour of an interview with Captain Kuchiki of the Sixth Court Guardian Squad." He gave a very low, formal bow, lower even than the one to Hitsugaya.

Byakuya nodded. "I was informed that you would be coming. Please, follow me to the audience chamber."

Once the two were seated across a very expensive-looking table, the interview began.

"How may I assist you, Miss Rakuen?"

"Well..." Kyōraku feigned demure hesitation, "I must admit I have become fascinated by the ideals of honour and duty with which you have invested your squad, Captain Kuchiki. Would you mind telling me more about how you believe a captain should conduct himself?"

"Of course." Byakuya nodded with satisfaction. "As a member of the nobility, I have always been called upon to maintain the highest standards of impersonal commitment, and I believe that it is only just to extend these principles to the..."

Kyōraku listened and endeavoured to give every appearance of interest while inwardly contemplating his poor Nanao, and how distraught she must be over not having seen her captain for a whole twenty-four hours. Being honest with himself, he had to admit "not very", at least outwardly. At length, Byakuya seemed to run out of steam.

"Why, that is exactly right, if you'll forgive the presumption, captain. I realise that a member of a lesser noble house such as myself could never reach the heights of morality that you embody, but you certainly inspire me to seek to imitate them better."

Byakuya seemed impressed. "Your humility does you credit. If you are interested, I have penned several essays on behaviour and propriety in the modern world..."

Could the nonsense Kyōraku was spouting really be so convincing? He half doubted himself. Nevertheless...

"I would be delighted. But first, if I may, another question. I understand your dedication to your clan is one of the main driving forces in your life. But one thing I do not feel in this house is a woman's hand. Am I mistaken in thinking that a well-chosen marriage and a successor are key parts of a nobleman's duty?"

A shadow passed across Byakuya's face. "I was married... once. However, my wife perished of illness some time ago. Now, I am alone here, excepting the retainers."

For a second, Kyōraku felt guilty. Then he remembered Byakuya's proposed blanket ban on alcohol consumption by lieutenants and captains, and quickly recovered.

"Alas." Kyōraku pursued the path open to him. "It must be truly painful to have no-one with whom to share your ideals and aspirations. I apologise for raising the matter."

"Not at all, not at all." Byakuya shook his head. "It is a nobleman's solemn duty to accept whatever fate is dealt out to him with dignity and grace, no matter how challenging."

Kyōraku sensed that, distracted by his own thoughts, Byakuya was starting to lower his guard. "If only I were able to ease your burden, Captain Kuchiki. I, who can but aspire to learn the wisdom that you take for granted, and seek the heights of clarity and restraint where you dwell."

There seemed to be some sort of inner conflict at work in young Byakuya now. Kyōraku decided to go for a final push before his target could recover.

"If only I could give myself over to the teachings of the Kuchiki Clan, and submit to having its laws inscribed in my heart..." He looked down, doing his best to express longing tempered by humility (not a trait he was naturally proficient with).

Byakuya looked up. "I have never met a woman of your dedication to the ways of true nobility. Perhaps... it is not inconceivable that I could teach you some of the things you so earnestly desire."

That's it. Just a little further... "But I am so very aware of my unworthiness, Lord Kuchiki. Though I am prepared to submit to your will without question, how could a lesser noble such as myself have the temerity to offer myself to your instruction? How could I dare offer you my body and soul in the name of solace?"

Byakuya stood up. "I have made my decision. If you are truly committed, then follow me."

They walked down several long corridors together, Byakuya's emotionless expression being undermined by the sheer speed with which he walked. At last, they came to a bedroom which seemed to have been kept ready for this very eventuality. Kyōraku privately congratulated himself on remembering that Byakuya's strict rules were largely there to keep an impetuous youth's temper in check.

Even so...the cherry blossoms scattered across the bed, and the enchanted lamps giving an intimately dim glow, to say nothing of various artistic yet undeniably sexual paintings hung on the walls... this was quite a distinct side to the normally reserved captain.

Byakuya lowered him gently onto the bed, then began the very lengthy process of aristocratic undress, starting with the green hair decorations. He turned to Kyōraku halfway through and took his hand.

"There is but one single formality we must engage in before we proceed."

"What might that be, my lord?" Kyōraku's danger sense was tingling.

"You see this tablet on the bedside table? By ancient clan law, once you have touched it and imprinted your spirit force upon it, you will legally be registered as my concubine. Of course, to engage in such an activity without this formal step would be unthinkable."

Kyōraku slowly nodded.

"Now come, let me press our hands together on it, and the entire Soul Society will recognise the union of our hearts and wills."

Byakuya drew Kyōraku's hand closer to the tablet. There were only a few centimetres left. Kyōraku panicked.

"Way of Destruction Number Thirty-One: Shot of Red Fire!" He aimed directly at the tablet, knowing its destruction to be the only way to save his bachelorhood.

The spell fizzled. Kyōraku quietly cursed Ukitake, who was so absolutely right about the need to keep practicing after graduation all those centuries ago. Still, nothing for it now.

"Pale Lightning! Blue Fire, Crash Down! Abolishing Flames! Shot of Red Fire, what the hell! Orchid Sky!"

Kyōraku threw out demon arts as fast as he could, not even waiting to see if they'd fired off successfully or not. Some fizzled. Others detonated. Several misfired in quite unusual and fascinating ways. Byakuya, shocked, withdrew his hand, and was quickly lost in the acrid multicoloured smoke that filled the room.

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Byakuya shouted over the noise of a rapidly expanding, branching mass of raw destructive energy.

"I'M SO SORRY! I'VE JUST REMEMBERED THAT I'M MARRIED WITH SIX CHILDREN! PLEASE DON'T THINK BADLY OF ME!"

The explosion could be heard for miles around. Kyōraku did not wait for Byakuya to get his bearings, but ran as fast as flash step could take him, leaving the nearly naked nobleman to rally his retainers and try to save the remaining half of the Kuchiki Clan compound.

-o-

After a break, outside the Second Squad area...

That had been insane. Kyōraku shook his head. Hopefully, Byakuya would be too embarrassed to spread the news of what had happened, but still...

The next target was Soi Fon, because whatever happened here was bound to cheer him up after the last couple of failures. Either she would turn him down quickly for being a woman, and he could move on without feeling like he'd failed, or... or... might he actually end up sleeping with the legendary ice queen? Assuming he could somehow get away without her learning the truth and having him executed, the idea was not unappealing. Quite a big assumption to be making, though.

Kyōraku took a deep breath and walked into Soi Fon's office.

"Good afternoon. My name is Rakuen Shunga. Would you mind giving me an interview for an article I'm preparing on the efficient organisation of the Thirteen Guardian Squads?"

Soi Fon, sitting at a desk covered with towering stacks of paper, gave him a piercing look. "Yes, but please be brief. As you can see, I am very busy."

Kyōraku bowed. "Thank you very much. Now, could you please tell me a little about your approach to the law, and how you think enforcing it improves the running of the Court of Pure Souls?"

"Of course." Soi Fon looked up from the form she was filling in. "To my mind, the law is the guiding framework that defines our lives, both those of the enforcers and the subjects, and there is nothing more important than protecting that framework in order to safeguard order."

Kyōraku smiled. "In other words, you believe that strict adherence to the rules is the key to peace and harmony? How marvellous. And where do you see yourself in relation to that?"

"It is my place to enforce the law, without prejudice, hesitation or deviation. Those who abide by the law will enjoy happiness, while those who deviate from it will be cut down... as soon as we confirm their guilt, of course." Soi Fon sounded satisfied.

"So cool and efficient... truly magnificent, Captain Soi Fon. I knew that a woman captain would have to be something special, but that relentless discipline... I find it irresistible." Kyōraku leaned closer to Soi Fon.

"Yes, well, I'm glad you think so. I'm afraid that, at the moment, the predominant views on crime and punishment in the Court are far too lax, but everyone closes their eyes to the need for radical reform. Only we in the Second Squad have the executive experience to truly understand what justice means."

Kyōraku leaned closer still. "I know exactly what you are saying. That sort of rigid control... it is something I would gladly submit to for the greater good. Perhaps, Captain Soi Fon, you might be interested in teaching it to me directly?"

Soi Fon looked up, startled. "You surely can't be implying..."

"That is exactly what I am implying. I'd be happy for you to teach me right and wrong, even to punish me if I've been a bad girl. What do you say?"

Kyōraku woke up a little later to find himself hung by the ankles over a vat of bubbling green acid. At this stage, he could not be sure whether his plan had been successful or not.

Soi Fon was standing on a platform at the far side of the room. He couldn't help noticing that the room had no windows. The diminutive captain glowered at him.

"Who told you?"

"Err... who told me what, dear captain?"

"Don't play dumb!" Soi Fon snapped. She pulled a lever, and Kyōraku was lowered a little further towards the acid. "How did you find out?"

"But find out what?" Even for Soi Fon, this seemed a little too far out to be foreplay. So either this was a really twisted game, or things had gone rather wrong.

"That... I'm asking the questions here! Now tell me, or you will suffer a slow and agonising death!" Soi Fon nudged the lever again.

"I swear I don't know what you're talking about, Captain!" Kyōraku was tempted to throw caution to the wind and confess everything, but it occurred to him that Soi Fon might be tempted to dish out justice there and then, with terminal consequences.

"Don't lie to me! We of Second Squad see through all forms of deception, and cut down the perpetrators without hesitation. Now, tell me who has been spreading such a vile, unsubstantiated rumour, and I may consider reducing your sentence to mere long-term imprisonment." Kyōraku, upside down and feeling the blood steadily rushing to his head, couldn't quite tell, but was Soi Fon trembling with rage?

"If- If you could just tell me what the rumour was..." There had to be a way out of this, but for some reason the sensible approach wasn't working.

"You dare suggest that such sickening, baseless slander would ever pass these lips? You disgusting beast!" Soi Fon yanked on the lever again. The heat from the acid was becoming quite palpable now.

Kyōraku was running out of time and options. Common sense hadn't worked, and he was getting increasingly dizzy. Now, who would be able to find a way out of this situation? It is probably something Kyōraku would never even have considered in a normal state of mind, but there was only one person he knew who always got what he wanted in Soul Society. What Would Kenpachi Do?

What Kenpachi always did. Full frontal assault. "Most enchanting Captain Soi Fon, I am so sorry for any misunderstanding. I don't know of any rumours pertaining to captains, but I do know that I fell for you from the very first moment I heard your passionate words. I could tell that, behind that perfectly sculpted mask of ice you wear, there beats a heart of fire, and I only wanted to be warmed by its glow. Is that too much to ask?"

Soi Fon froze completely. Seconds passed.

Then she pulled a different lever. The vat of acid retracted. Shortly afterwards, the chain holding Kyōraku up detached itself, leaving him to collapse to the floor head-first.

By the time he stood up, she was standing in front of him, looking very uncomfortable. Was it just his imagination, or was her face red with more than the heat of the room? But this observation did not prepare him for what came next.

"I'm sorry, but..." Soi Fon gave a hesitant bow reminiscent of nothing so much as a schoolgirl receiving her first confession, "... my heart belongs to another." She paused, still looking down. "Um, please leave now." She looked sheepish.

Kyōraku, confused but happy to somehow still be alive, did not need telling twice. In fact, he practically ran.

-o-

Eleventh Squad, temporary Captain's Office...

Kyōraku had taken a while to find the place - the original office, and its first replacement, and the second, and the third, were still under repairs due to massive battle damage, though no Hollow or intruder or rebel had made it into the Court for centuries. Ah, that Kenpachi.

Still, that's what made him appealing right now. Apart from the fact that having his life indirectly saved by the man now made Kyōraku feel a bit more affectionate towards him, there was the advantage that Kenpachi was simple, direct, easy to deal with once you grasped a few basic principles.

"So, Captain Zaraki, you were telling me about how much you love fighting. Do you also enjoy other forms of physical activity?"

"Huh?" Kenpachi did not entirely seem at ease with the concept of "interview", but he was in a relaxed mood (having just come out of a mildly invigorating warm-up against a mere thirty squad members) and was willing to give it a shot. "You mean like sports or kendo or what?"

"Well, actually..." Kyōraku took advantage of the fact that they were already both standing up (the temporary office having no furniture) to draw a little closer to him. "I mean that a strong, virile, manly man like you must have all sorts of needs."

"Needs?" Kenpachi rubbed his head in puzzlement. "Well, it's true that there hasn't been a decent challenge around for a while. The new recruits are kinda wimpy these days - I mean, they actually stop fighting once they're unconscious - and for some reason the other captains don't do duels for fun. So you could say I'm a bit bored."

"I see." Kyōraku moved in for the kill. "Well, I know a few very special ways to relieve boredom, Captain Zaraki. I am very good at... satisfying needs." He draped his arms around Kenpachi's shoulders seductively.

"Ohh." Comprehension dawned. That's what this girl's roundabout talk had been trying to build up to. "You're challenging me to a wrestling competition? I like your spirit!" Comprehension sank below the horizon again.

"No, I... aagh, my spine!" Fortunately, Kyōraku was still a captain behind his disguise, and just about managed to hold his ground. As he desperately tried to avoid being tied in a knot, he gradually came to see the advantages of the situation. They were already rolling around on the floor holding each other tightly, and Kenpachi was still topless from his exercise earlier. A few more items of clothing removed, and he'd be most of the way there!

With some advanced shoulder motions, he managed to shrug off the top half of his kimono. Now if he could just do something about that sash, even Kenpachi wouldn't misunderstand what was going on. And the man's own hakama was starting to slide down thanks to Kyōraku's targeted twisting...

"Ooh, Kenny, you're having a wrestling match? Yaay! Get her good!" The pink-haired demon settled down on a windowsill and proceeded to watch. Yachiru. And to think he'd been so close...

-o-

Half an hour of agony later, outside Thirteenth Squad...

Kyōraku was now feeling rather sorry for himself. This was getting ridiculous. He had to pick a target who wouldn't try to kill him, deliberately or by accident. Surely there had to be someone? And Ukitake, best friend since childhood days, was as non-lethal as he was going to get.

"So, if I understand you correctly, Miss Rakuen, you feel your able assistance could help me relieve the pressures of running my squad every day, and might even benefit my overall health?"

"That's right, Captain Ukitake. I do so love the gentle, refined kind of man. Someone you can build a real connection with..."

As they talked they moved smoothly in the direction of Ukitake's bedroom. Kyōraku was thrilled. At last, matters were proceeding exactly as he was planning. Kyōraku did his best to suppress a grin as Ukitake opened the bedroom door, and motioned for him to go in first.

"You are truly fascinating, Miss Rakuen. I, too, hold to the belief that love is the best healer for all manner of injuries. Now, if you'll permit me..."

He reached down and unfastened Kyōraku's sash, then gently, sensually removed his various layers of underwear. Somewhat to his surprise, Kyōraku could feel an experienced hand at work.

However, he now felt an experienced hand at work on his thighs, sliding ever upward. An intense inner conflict raged within Kyōraku. As a man, he couldn't lose a bet he'd committed himself to. But, also as a man, he couldn't actually sleep with another guy. Ukitake looked down at him and gave a warm, meaningful smile. The hand was almost there...

Kyōraku jumped out of bed violently, heterosexuality finally winning out over pride. He quickly grabbed his bundle of clothes, and sprinted for the door. Ukitake's gaze followed him.

Right as he was almost out of sight, Ukitake called out to him.

"Oh, Kyōraku?"

Kyōraku froze.

"You need to take smaller steps. When a woman's kimono is fitted properly, it restricts leg movement considerably."

Kyōraku ran faster than before.

-o-

After surreptitiously getting dressed in an unused Thirteenth Squad warehouse...

Kyōraku clutched his head. How had he known? Obviously, he must have recognised some speech pattern, or a mannerism or something, but then he carried on anyway! Ukitake might just have been winding him up, or worse, actually meaning it, but either way the trickster had become the tricked. And he couldn't even count it towards a successful seduction.

Well, Kyōraku Shunsui wasn't licked yet! But planning to work on it. In other words, the only thing that could assuage his wounded manhood now was the company of an actual woman... Kyōraku turned determinedly in the direction of Fourth Squad.

Captain Unohana received him courteously, and even offered him a cup of tea.

"Ah, yes, I heard you might be coming by, Miss Rakuen. How can I help you?"

"Well, to be honest, I need healing. My body and soul have both been battered by the uncouth nature of many of the men in the Squads, and all I long for is the attention of a fellow woman."

Unohana's smile did not waver. "In other words..."

"Perhaps you might be able to restore my spirits? A beautiful, mature woman such as yourself must have so much experience, and I'm sure there is a lot I can offer you as well..." Kyōraku was, to be honest, at a bit of a loss. He'd known Unohana for a long time, but that didn't mean he understood her, and in fact if there was anyone he really didn't want to get on the wrong side of...

Unohana gave him a warm look. "I see. Well, I shall of course consider your suggestion carefully, with one natural caveat."

"A caveat?"

"Well, more of a full physical examination. We here at Fourth Squad take communicable diseases very seriously, you see, so I would have to examine every inch of your body before deciding what to do with it."

Kyōraku looked at Unohana. She looked back, and smiled just as warmly as before. He felt a sense of terrible, overwhelming danger.

"Err... no, you know what, I think I may have changed my mind. Sorry for wasting your time. Good day to you." Kyōraku left as quickly as politeness would allow.

-o-

Third Squad, late evening...

"Why, yes, Captain Ichimaru, please do tell me more about your hobbies." This one was going surprisingly well. The Third Squad captain wasn't showing any hesitation or reserve - in fact, he was positively forthcoming. This Kyōraku could work with.

"Well, snakes are so very fun, don'cha think? Just playin' with them, pettin' them, feedin' them little rodents... They'd be some of my favourite animals." Gin gave a creepy smile.

"Uhh... I see. How very fascinating." Why didn't the guy ever open his eyes? Kyōraku had no idea whether he was being serious or just testing him. "Is it their smooth skin that appeals to you, you think?"

"Hmm, maybe that. But really, 's also the venom. Did ya know, some of them can paralyse a victim, and it'll still be alive and feelin' every second of bein' eaten?" Gin licked his lips meaningfully. Kyōraku quietly damned the Institute of Research and Development for not inventing a memory eraser that would work on captain-class people.

"R-right. And what about people? How do you feel about other people?"

"They're fascinatin' too. Ya can nudge them just a lil' bit and they'll warp, or run away, or break, but ya never know which one until ya try. Yeah, I like people." Gin paused.

"Ya know, ya seem like a nice gal. Why don't I take ya to my rooms and show ya some of the stuff I'm talkin' about?"

Kyōraku hesitated. This seemed like his perfect opportunity, but didn't something feel off?

"Come on, I'll show you my chains and leather collection. And then there's this creepy thing with lots of tentacles I found in Rukongai a few months ago. I've been feedin' it small animals, and it's growin' real nice. I'm sure ya've never seen anythin' like it."

That's what felt off. The man was a seriously disturbed basket case.

"You know what, it's been very nice talking to you, Captain Ichimaru, but it's gettin', I mean getting late, and I think I should go home."

"Aah, all right. Guess I should be the gentleman and walk ya back, right? Very bad things can happen to young women in dark alleys at night, ya know." Gin smiled again. A shiver went down Kyōraku's spine.

"No, you know what, I really think I'll be OK on my own. Bye now!" Kyōraku fled, flagrantly disregarding Ukitake's advice about female movement speed.

As the door slammed shut, Gin's smile grew a little wider. "Did I pass this one, I wonder, Lord Aizen?"

-o-

Seventh Squad, still late evening...

Dear heavens. Was the Court always this full of lunatics, madmen and perverts? Actually, the cross-dressing indiscriminate lothario reflected, I'm in no position to talk. Still, he was running low on time to win the bet, so best get on with it. At least Captain Tōsen would be more straightforward, and probably treat a lady with courtesy and respect.

"Good evening. My name is Rakuen Shunga, and I'm conducting a series of interviews for an article on-"

Tōsen turned to face him sharply. "Captain Kyōraku, I am very disappointed in you. From what I can tell, you are either impersonating another, a serious crime, or dressing as a woman and pretending to be a fictional person, an even worse crime since it violates not only trust between people, but the boundaries between man and woman that form the very foundation of social order."

"I... wha... how did you know?"

"I may be blind, but I am not stupid. As you can see, I am returning from training, so my Soul Slayer is with me. Please do not resist arrest - I would like this settled peacefully and without bloodshed." Tōsen's hand went to the hilt of his sword even as he said this.

"I - but - this isn't what it looks like, Tōsen! If you'd just let me explain..." Did the disguise technique not work on blind people? But it should have at least concealed his voice!

"So you will resist? Then, in the name of justice, I fear I will have to strike you down. Cry, Suzumushi!"

Kyōraku was very nearly knocked unconscious by the sonic blast, but he'd had worse training with Old Man Yama, and stood his ground. "Please, Tōsen, isn't this a little extreme? I mean-"

"Must you persist in promoting chaos and violence, Captain Kyōraku? Then I see I have no choice. Suzumushi Second Style: Flying-"

But what went flying was Tōsen himself, bowled over by Captain Komamura.

"What are you doing!?"

Komamura held Tōsen back. "I am very sorry, young lady. It looks like the stress of squad drills has finally caught up with Captain Tōsen if he's confusing you with Captain Kyōraku. Please, allow me to escort you to my office, and I'll see what I can do about calming your nerves. Tōsen, you'd better get to bed. We can talk about this in the morning."

Tōsen looked not only slightly worse for wear after having the Thirteen Squads' heaviest captain land on him, but also very flustered. "What? No, you don't understand, Komamura! He's really-"

"Yes, yes, Tōsen." Komamura replied in a voice traditionally reserved for small children complaining about Menos Grandes under the bed. "We'll sort this out later, so why don't you just go and have a nice cup of tea and a good rest." He led Kyōraku away from the scene before any further argument could take place.

-o-

Soon...

"Here you are, Miss... Rakuen, was it? I'm sure some quality green tea will help you get over your ordeal."

"Oh, thank you so much, Captain Komamura. You saved my life! I really don't know what I would have done without you." Kyōraku decided not to waste any time.

"Yes, well, it's the least I could do. I beg you, please do not take offense at Captain Tōsen's behaviour. He's a little... eccentric, but he has a heart of gold." Komamura's face was completely invisible behind his helmet, but his voice was warm and a little shy.

"Oh, I see. You are so magnanimous as well as brave. Isn't there anything I can do to repay you?" Kyōraku looked up at the very tall Seventh Squad captain meaningfully.

"Well..." Komamura hesitated, not sure what to make of the strange emphasis in Kyōraku's eyes. "You could avoid mentioning tonight's incident to anyone. I'll talk to Tōsen in the morning, and I'm sure we'll find out it was all just one huge misunderstanding."

"Aheh. Yes, I'm sure we will. But isn't there another way that a woman may repay a man? Come, let's get that armour off, and I'll show you." Kyōraku reached up.

Komamura quickly stood up, out of the seated woman's reach. "No, really, madam, I do not need that kind of compensation."

"Don't be coy, now. I'm sure a strong, chivalrous man like you must be ever so popular with the girls."

"No, madam. I'm sorry, but my heart belongs to Captain Commander Yamamoto alone."

Kyōraku choked on his drink. "It what?!"

Komamura was puzzled. Was a vassal's duty to his lord really such an obsolete concept, here where everyone you met was a warrior dedicated to protecting the world? "I know it must seem strange, Miss Rakuen, but Captain Commander Yamamoto saved my life and gave me a new purpose when I needed it most. I could not betray his trust by entering into a romantic commitment which might ultimately conflict with my loyalties."

Kyōraku sighed. "I... err... understand, Captain Komamura. I had no idea you were batting for that particular team. Well, I think I'll be going now." Dejected, he stood up and walked out, trying hard not to think about his next destination.

Komamura, still puzzled by the young woman's strong reaction, replayed the original sentence a few times in his head. Something clicked. "Oh, ten thousand damnations!" He dashed out, hoping to catch her before it was too late, but the journalist was already gone. Komamura went back to his office and cradled his head in his arms.

-o-

Institute of Research and Development, night-time...

This was the one he'd prayed he wouldn't have to reach. Kyōraku would rather gnaw off his own leg than have to try to seduce Mayuri Kurotsuchi. But he was running out of time and options. After everything he'd endured, he had to win now, no matter what.

Kyōraku was trembling as he introduced himself to Kurotsuchi, and tried - and failed - to engage him in small talk. Eventually, however, he found the right track.

"So you say you have little practical experience of women?"

"That is correct." Kurotsuchi tapped his one long fingernail on the table. "I did build one once, as a matter of scientific curiosity, but for some reason the female squad members are even less interested in spending time in my laboratory than the male ones. I can only attribute it to some sort of irrationality specific to the gender."

"Then... there must be significant gaps in your research. Sexuality, for example." Kyōraku still could not believe he was doing this.

"Unfortunately so. I don't suppose you'd be willing to assist me?"

Aha. Finally, a nice clear opportunity. "I'd be delighted to. I'm sure I can teach you as much about the ways of men and women as you can teach me about science."

"Splendid. Splendid. Oh, by the way, I added some sleep-inducing chemicals to your drink. I thought it might save time."

"You... wha..." Drat. Not again.

This time, Kyōraku woke up completely naked, and chained to a metal slab at his wrists and ankles. It's not exactly that he was a stranger to this sort of thing (two thousand years is a long time), but these really weren't great terms on which to face Kurotsuchi in particular.

The man himself was standing next to the slab, notably still fully dressed.

"Umm... would you mind undoing these chains, Captain Kurotsuchi? It's not that I don't appreciate their appeal, but I would prefer something lighter for our first session. Also, shouldn't you take off your clothes?" Kyōraku tried not to let desperation show in his voice.

"My clothes? Whatever for?"

"Err... well... it's a fairly standard requirement of sex that at least some clothes have to be removed, right?" And, more importantly, then we can get to the bit about REMOVING THESE CHAINS!

"Ah, I see. You are labouring under a misapprehension." Kurotsuchi shook his head disapprovingly. "I will not be participating in the act quite so directly. If I did, I might not be able to make observations in an objective fashion. But have no fear, all the necessary preparations are in place."

Kurotsuchi placed his hand between his legs. Kyōraku tensed, then relaxed again when he realised the captain was merely drawing his Soul Slayer. Then he tensed twice as hard when he realised that Kurotsuchi was drawing his Soul Slayer.

"Rip, Ashisogi Jizō."

The Soul Slayer changed shape. What it turned into was something twisted, unnaturally proportioned, horrifying in a grotesque way, but very definitely phallic. If Kyōraku had ever had any homosexual inclinations, this would have been enough to dispel them. He struggled against the chains with renewed vigour.

"Don't worry. I make it a policy not to run experiments on new subjects for more than twelve hours at a time." Kurotsuchi raised the... thing which Kyōraku's mind refused to come up with a name for.

"W-wait!"

"Yes, what is it?" Kurotsuchi gave an impatient sigh.

"I haven't had a shower!" Kyōraku clutched at the first straw that came to mind.

"What of it?"

"Well..." Think fast, Shunsui, think as if your life depended on it. It does. "Well, I haven't showered since yesterday morning, so my body must be covered with biological contaminants! There's no way you'll get accurate readings like this!"

"Oh." The mad scientist sounded deflated. "Very well. I'll take you to the shower, but please be quick. I have a number of important trials scheduled after this."

Once in the tiny shower room, Kyōraku listened until that ghastly man's footsteps receded into the distance. Clearly, it had all been a bad idea from the start. Were his masculine pride, the validation of his way of life, and unlimited access to Soul Society's best wine cellar really worth it? Actually, now he asked it, the question was still a difficult one.

More urgently, he suspected that this section of the lab would be locked to prevent interruption, and had no idea how to get out. Worse, Kurotsuchi would be coming back for him in mere minutes. There was only one thing for it.

He picked a direction at random that he thought might lead to the outside world, and then he tried very hard to remember what Old Man Yama had taught him. "Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! On the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus. In the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens! Way of Destruction Number Sixty-Three: Twin Lotus, Blue Fire, Crash Down OhPleasePleaseWork!"

It did. In the confusion of the flooding and the rubble and the random explosions that seemed to be going off all over the place, Kyōraku's random use of the highest-level destructive spells he could think of - with full incantations - was gradually letting him tunnel his way out of the compound. At one point, he passed the original slab he'd been chained to, and retrieved what was left of the kimono - it was no longer wearable after Kurotsuchi had apparently cut him out of it, but he did manage to salvage Aizen's hairpin. At one point, he also thought he heard a scream of "damn you to the deepest hells, Rakuen Shunga!" echoing in the distance.

Kyōraku had escaped. He felt rather light-headed, and a little sick, and his heart was still beating at triple normal speed. Oh, and he was stark naked in the middle of the Court of Pure Souls, with only a hairpin to his name and some of the most powerful men in existence out for his blood. But he had escaped.

After finding a spare women's uniform hanging on a washing line, Kyōraku pondered his options. The disguise spell would wear off in a matter of hours, according to Sōsuke. After that, he'd be OK as long as no-one connected the mysterious nymphomaniac reporter to quiet, harmless old Kyōraku Shunsui. Now, he could try and hide until the night was over. Or... he could bet it all on one last roll of the dice. After everything he'd been through, could he really give up now?

-o-

First Squad Captain's Office, late night...

Luckily, he knew that Old Man Yama often stayed up ridiculously late reading, especially on pleasant spring nights such as this. Gaining an audience hadn't even been a problem. The problem came slightly later, when he had to come up with an even slightly credible justification for acting attracted to the crochety old geezer.

"...so why don't you and I go somewhere cosy, and you can teach me everything you've learned over the last couple of thousand years?"

To his surprise, that line actually worked. Kyōraku made a mental note to wash his mouth out with soap later as he listened to the old man's response.

"I know the very place, lass. It's a little far out, but no-one will disturb us. Can you keep up with flash step?"

Kyōraku beamed. His last-ditch efforts had not been for nothing. The two of them zoomed off, to a meadow somewhere in the reaches beyond Rukongai. It seemed a little remote, but it did make sense for the most important man in the Thirteen Squads to want privacy for his trysts, and besides, there was a certain something to picking natural surroundings when the weather was so good. Were he not faced with the dessicated fossil of his millennia-old mentor, the atmosphere might even have been romantic.

At last, the journey ended, and Yamamoto was facing Kyōraku across the plain. But wasn't he standing a little too far away for what they were about to do?

"So it really was you behind all this chaos, Kyōraku. I can be sure now - you may be hiding behind a disguise, but only a handful of people can match my flash step like that."

Oh, crap. "No, listen, Old Man Yama, I know this looks bad, but I swear-"

"No excuses!" Yamamoto shouted. "You have made a mockery of the Court of Pure Souls, brought the office of captain into terrible disrepute, and wreaked destruction on a scale unseen for centuries! I will punish you for these crimes myself." He put his hand on his staff, and Kyōraku was too panicked even to appreciate the double meaning.

"Wait, I can explain!"

"I told you that I will not accept excuses. Reduce all creation to ashes, Ryūjin Jakka!"

Kyōraku felt the wave of flame coming towards him even before he saw it. Oh, how he wished he had his own Soul Slayer on him. As it was, all he could do is grit his teeth and try to use his own spirit force to minimise the damage. Not that there was any real hope of survival, of course, but what else could a man do when faced with his death but fight?

Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. The flames were gone, and he was still alive. True, his clothes hadn't even survived the first half-second of the blast, but right now that seemed a small price to pay. Kyōraku looked up.

Yamamoto was standing oddly still, his Soul Slayer on the ground and his right hand clutching at his heart. He seemed to be trying to say something. Sensing the oddness of the situation, Kyōraku came closer to listen.

"F-ff..." Yamamoto tried to get the syllables out, his eyes very wide.

"Fire? Flame? Uhh, fury?" Kyōraku started guessing. What else were Old Man Yama's favourite words?

"Ff-for..."

"For shame? Forbidden behaviour? Forsake this path of iniquity?"

"F-fourth Squad!" Yamamoto gasped. "Call Unohana - I'm h-having a heart attack!" He collapsed heavily on the ground.

Kyōraku was stunned. Then, he looked down at his voluptuous, naked female body, exposed to Yamamoto in one sudden burst, and everything clicked into place.

Unfortunately, Unohana was off duty that night, and Kyōraku's desperate running around the Court of Pure Souls, trying to find her without even time to get a change of clothes, gave a whole new meaning to the term "flash step".

-o-

Several days later, at a secret location deep underground...

Kyōraku, his hands bound together, looked up at the twelve captains attending the tribunal. They mostly looked enraged, though a couple, he noted, seemed more amused.

"In addition to the above, Shunsui Kyōraku is charged with large-scale destruction of property, attempted manslaughter, solicitation, political provocation, corruption of youth, being drunk on duty, subversive activity, abuse of power, conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice, and petty theft. The total penalty amounts to execution... twice... followed by ten thousand years in prison with no visiting rights." Soi Fon read out the charges with a glint of malicious satisfaction in her eyes.

Yamamoto looked down, his enormous eyebrows narrowing in accusation. "Do you have anything to say in your defence, youngster?"

At this point, to everyone's surprise, Aizen spoke up.

"Captain Commander Yamamoto, I feel that the charges against Captain Kyōraku are so entirely justified that we must not hesitate to follow the letter of the law. If further proof is necessary, when Kyōraku came to me and I failed to dissuade him from his mad scheme - which I would have reported immediately had I not been suddenly called away on vital business - I gave him this hairpin, through which I recorded all of his exploits."

The room went deadly silent.

"And, in accordance with the letter of the law, the recorded data must be transferred to the official archives, where all authorised personnel will have free access. After all, unless we were to dismiss the case altogether, we are legally obliged to file all evidence for future review."

The silence deepened.

"On second thought..." Yamamoto cleared his throat. "On second thought, perhaps it might be possible to overlook Captain Kyōraku's behaviour as a single childish prank against a history of near-impeccable behaviour. Do you not agree?" He looked around at the fellow captains, whose faces ranged from pale to green to confused to attempting to hide a smile. None seemed likely to voice an objection.

"Then the case is dismissed. Oh, and Captain Aizen, please turn all copies of the recorded data over at once for appropriate disposal."

"Of course, Captain Commander. Of course."